Meet Charles James, Star of the 2014 Met Gala

By
Charles James, photographed by Cecil Beaton.
Charles James, photographed by Cecil Beaton. Photo: Corbis

The Met’s Costume Institute has announced next year’s show, which will highlight the life and career of American designer Charles James. WWD calls himAmerica’s best-known couturier,” which perhaps says more about American couture than it does about James, since plenty of people have never heard of him. But don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time to learn! Here’s a quick fact sheet.

Born: 1906, in Sandhurst, England.
Died: 1978, of bronchial pneumonia, in New York. 
Education: Harrow, an independent boys’ school in London. He was supposedly expelled over a mysterious “sexual escapade.”
Principal Residences: Raised in London, he spent his late teens in Chicago and moved to New York in 1928. He occasionally spent stretches of time in Paris, but spent his later years living at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, where he died.

Parents: His father was a British officer, and his mother was a wealthy heiress from Chicago.

Other Family Members: He had a son, Charles James Jr., in 1956, who inspired him to create a children’s collection.

Friends: During his childhood in London, James befriended Evelyn Waugh, Francis Rose, and most important, Cecil Beaton, who later photographed his designs for Vogue.

Signature Style: Known for his voluminous, waist-hugging silhouettes, James made dresses that were often stiffly structured. He even studied human anatomy in order to make his designs more sculptural. He preferred sumptuous jewel tones and thick fabrics like satin, velvet, and taffeta. His most popular dress was the Swan, which was featured in American Vogue in the early fifties; it consisted of over 30 layers of tulle and employed a complex dressmaking technique known as a “tie-back bustle support,” popular in the 1870s and 1880s, which created an extra-poufy rear. He also designed a gown known as the Taxi, which had spiraling zippers for easy outfit changes. Costume Institute curator Harold Koda explains to WWD“He had this funny idea that [a] woman who wanted to dress and undress in a taxi could spiral out of this dress, and put on another dress.”

Famous Clients: Socialites like Babe Paley, Austine Hearst, Dominique de Menil, Marietta Tree, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Legend has it that when artist Lee Krasner had her first solo exhibition in London, she asked James to make her a dress, but said she didn’t want to call too much attention to herself. He answered, “That, Mrs. Pollock, is the one thing I cannot do for you.” She promptly ordered three outfits: a green wool suit, a brocade cocktail dress, and a white evening gown.

Also Known For: Fun hats! He began his career as a milliner in Chicago, opening his first store under the name of a schoolmate, Charles Boucherdon, when he was only 19. After moving to New York, he opened another hat shop in Murray Hill, which later became the site of his first atelier.

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Look Job 52-1129 Frame-18

Charles James, 1952

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by Cecil Beaton Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive/The Condé Nast Publications

Charles James ball gowns, 1948

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by Cecil Beaton The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Nancy James in Charles James “Butterfly” gown, 1954

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by Cecil Beaton The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Nancy James in Charles James “Butterfly” gown, 1954

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bettmann/CORBIS/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Austine Hearst in Charles James “Four-Leaf Clover” gown, ca. 1953

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by John Rawlings / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive.

Babe Paley in Charles James gown, 1950

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photograph by Cecil Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive/The Condé Nast Publications

Charles James with model, 1948

Meet Charles James, Star of the 2014 Met Gala